An American family, an Indonesian tribe, an oral language and its first book

In 1973 Sue (pictured) and Peter Westrum and their baby went to live among an indigenous tribe in Indonesian New Guinea. They had been dispatched by Wycliffe Bible Translators (check out my interview with Wycliffe President and CEO Bob Creson)  to learn the Berik language, develop a script for it, and then translate the Bible into Berik. They spent more than 20 years there. It was a time of great transformation for the Berik people, their beliefs and their language.

This week’s pod is entirely given over to a conversation I had with Sue Westrum. It includes two astounding pieces of archive tape recorded in New Guinea by her husband Peter.  The first is the Westrums’ first meeting with the Berik people who lived essentially in the jungle, in several villages a few dozen miles upriver of a modern Indonesian port town.  The second recording is of Berik singing and drumming: one night a large number of them gathered unnanounced outside the Westrums’ makeshift home, and they just started playing and chanting. In both cases, the Westrums weren’t sure how to respond, though they sensed that these were friendly gestures.

Over time, the Westrums learned the Berik language. They also began teaching some of the Berik about the Bible, with a view to selecting some of the best students to help them translate it into Berik. The Westrums — and Wycliffe Bible Translators — insist that they are not Christian missionaries, that their role as translators is different. And in some cases  the roles can be kept separate. But perhaps not in this case. The Berik had animist beliefs and had been barely been exposed to other religions. It’s difficult to imagine how language classes focused on the Bible would not sometimes morph into Bible study and discussions of belief. Certainly, during the time that the Westrums lived among them, many Berik converted to Christianity.

There are so many aspects of Berik language and culture that are different from American English that the process of translating the Bible was painstakingly slow. One small example: for the Berik, the emotional center of a person is his gut — something between the heart and the soul in western thinking. The Wycliffe method is to translate words, ideas and messages in ways that speak to the target audience.  But there are, presumably, doctrinal limits as to how far a translator of the Bible can stray. (True, this hasn’t stopped some Bible translators in the past from veering radically and quite imaginatively from the original).

Eventually, the Bible was translated into Berik– the very first book (aside from education and nutrition booklets) to be published in what had been an oral language: a cause for celebration among those who wish to spread Christianity, but far from that among those who argue against such cultural and linguistic intervention in fragile indigenous societies. I barely get into this debate in this particular podcast, but I feel duty-bound to do so at some point in the future.

Listen in iTunes or here.

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10 responses to “An American family, an Indonesian tribe, an oral language and its first book

  1. Patrick, thanks for these well-done professional pieces that you’ve done on the work of Wycliffe Bible Translators. I appreciate your interesting and informative work.

    Bob Creson
    Wycliffe Bible Translators USA

  2. Johnny

    I would say that the world could have done better with some more respect and protection of indigenous cultures, and certainly less religious missionary condescendance. Especially on Earth Day, I mourn all the habitat and traditional medicinal knowledge now lost forever to the detriment of us all; an irretreiveable loss that we will now all feel for years to come.

    • Ed

      Hear hear! All gods are equal – how about translating something actually useful, instead of fairy tales from the Levant of thousands of years ago? What western, right-wing ethnocentrism!

      • David

        I wonder how many people realize the Bible continues to be the number 1 best seller both in the US and worldwide. They took it off the list because it was too “boring” to have the same book at the top of the list every year.

  3. Thomas Ho

    This is precisely the kind of story-telling which will help people to understand the value and power of God’s Word which is demonstrated by the positive transformation it can enable for a people group such as the Berik and by the willing sacrifice of people such as the Westrums who are willing to devote their lives to making God’s Word accessible to these people groups. I hope to hear MORE such stories!

  4. Yushak

    Love this episode, shows the travail involved in learning a new unrelated language. I was born and bred in Indonesia, and I have to say that the literacy program that these missionaries institutes allows the preservation of their oral culture, and for it to be shared to you! I was involved in part in translating the new testament into the local language in my island, and in doing so I benefited from the systematic approach these wycliffe field workers, I learnt a lot more more of my local language than I could have.

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  7. Yesenia

    This podcast was great because it deals with language and how it affects different cultures. The language being talked about above is Berik. Berik is like any other language that developed over time and was never official. For example, I know in Peru over dozens of indian languages are spoken throughout the country. Most languages in Peru are not even official nor have a written language. They are just spoken within the regions’s individual communities or passed down from generations. Many of the languages have diminished due to the lack of speaking it or there isn’t a trace to learn about it. One important thing is if a person wants to know more about the language study the culture and vice versa. Well its difficult to do when there the language doesn’t exist anymore. Luckily this was not the case for Berik. They actually made a book similar which is known as the bible. Writing things down is great because it teaches others about the values, of one’s culture. Such as Berik. Bibles or any type of book allow for others to open up their minds about different cultures, the languages they speak, and how they are similar or different to ones own language or culture.

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